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Steve Ballmer’s USAFacts Uses Smart Design To Make Sense of Government Spending

Originally published by Liz Stinson, Wired [link] on April 18, 2017

SAY YOU WANT to know the total number of students who attended charter school last year. Where would you look to find that information? You’d probably start with Google, which directs you to the landing page of the National Center For Education Statistics. From there you have to do some digging. Scroll down the page until you reach a list of tables and figures, and click on 2016. Scroll again, and look hard. Crammed between lines of tiny type, you’ll find your statistic: 2,721,786.

We put the data there in an orchestrated way so people can find it and create their own analysis.

Government data is available, but it’s not exactly accessible. A new project from former Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer and Seattle design studio Artefact aims to change that. Called USAFacts, it’s an ambitious, $10 million effort to present government data in a way that’s open, non-partisan, and stupidly easy to understand. The website, launching today, organizes 30 years of data from more than 70 local, state, and federal government agencies into a well-designed, centralized hub that its creators hope will give people a clearer picture of how the government makes and spends money.

USAFacts shares the intent of previous open data efforts—the government launched Data.gov in 2009 to centralize its stats, and President Obama passed the DATA Act in 2014 to get record-keeping standards up to snuff)—but adds much-needed vitality. The platform looks nothing like its bureaucratic counterparts or startups like OpenGov, which also tries to organize and parse government data. Its typeface is pleasingly legible. The site navigation is intuitive. But most importantly, Artefact has made dry facts and figures actually feel engaging. Ballmer’s team spent two years combing through government websites, manually pulling data from PDFs, spreadsheets, websites, and reports, and entering them into hundreds of Excel spreadsheets and data tables. Artefact’s designers took that mountain of raw information and translated it into a series of infographics that help make the slog of data not just accessible, but comprehensible.

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The main graphic on USAFacts shows how the government makes and spends money. USAFACTS

The infographics allow people to move seamlessly between a 30,000 foot view and a microscopic look at spending, with just a few clicks. Visit the USAFact’s landing page and you’ll find the interactive graphic pictured above. The colorful, geometric visualization aims to answer the project’s main question: Where does the government’s money come from? And where does it go?

To answer that, Artefact organized the graphic like Russian nesting dolls. The more you interact with it, the greater detail it reveals. Hover over a block on the infographic, and you’ll see the interconnectedness between various data sets. Click, and you’ll get more granular data about how the government uses that money. “How do you understand what the big picture is, without losing sight of it when you’re drilling into something pretty detailed?” asks Dave McColgin, a user experience designer at Artefact.

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Part of the solution was to choose the right infographic. Artefact had a lot of data to work with, much of it dating back 30 years. To show how data sets evolved over time, the designers decided to organize information into sparklines, simple squiggly line graphs used to represent dense sets of temporal information. Apple uses them to display heart rate on the Apple Watch. Financial publications deploy them to show market data.

Here, Artefact uses the line graphs to help you toggle between three decades’ worth of data. Dragging the marker on a visualization about crime rates, for example, will show you how related data (e.g. the cost of judicial systems or occurrence of property-related crime) has changed over the years, too. “We wanted to make sure people can spot relationships and trends in related content,” McColgin says.

The platform aims to be non-partisan and unbiased, but infographics are inherently editorialized. USAFact’s creators combat this by being as transparent as possible about where they found their data. Ballmer says he views USAFacts as a form of governmental annual report where neutrality is possible because unadulterated facts speak for themselves. “We put the data there in an orchestrated way so people can find it and create their own analysis,” he says. It’s a worthy mission, and one that’s been hamstrung in the past by shoddy organization and presentation. Ballmer’s platform certainly makes it easier to find the governmental data you’re looking for—and the data you didn’t know you were looking for. Now it’s just up to the people to make use of it.